Seven Functions of Icons: Number Six

Introduction: Sunday, October 15 commemorated the Seventh Ecumenical Council at which icons were restored to the Church as a confirmation of the centrality of Christ's Incarnation in Orthodox theology and a necessary aspect of worship. St John of Damascus was a key figure in this restoration and in his Defense of Icons, he lists 7 functions of Iconography. This post is part of a series on these functions we hope will be educational and inspirational, and lead you further towards our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Function 6 according to St John of Damascus:
They are conducive to our sanctification.

Divinity is equally present in an image of the cross and in other divine objects, not by nature, for these objects are not the flesh of God, but by virtue of their relative participation in divinity, for they participate in the grace and in the honor.

– Theodore the Studite

I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation.

– John of Damascus

We were created to partake of Life in the Trinity. God made this possible through the incarnation of the Son, fully God and fully man, taking on our flesh so we could partake in His life. This process of sanctification is helped by the grace of God, through the sacraments, scripture, hymnography, the lives of the saints and through icons.

Constantine Cavarnos writes in The Function of Icons that they serve "to help transform our character, our whole being, to help sanctify us." He says the icons accomplish this "based on the principle that we become like that which we habitually contemplate. True icons focus the distracted, dispersed soul of man on spiritual perfection, on the divine. By dwelling steadily and lovingly on such perfection, we come to partake of it more and more."

The Sixth Function of Icons is somewhat related to the Second and Third Functions: 2) They serve as a means of instructing in matters of the Christian Faith, of the teaching of the Church; and 3) They remind us of this teaching. Our liturgical year is "built on the remembrance of Christ." (Fr Alexander Schmemann from Liturgy and Life) Yet this remembrance is more than a mere thinking of things that happened in time. Schmemann elaborates: "For it is indeed the proper function of liturgy that in and through it everything that Christ accomplished once always returns to life, is made present again, actualized in its relation to us and our salvation." In this way, time is sanctified.

Similarly, icons make present to us the holiness of the person or event depicted. They are like the scriptures in this way. "... the icon contains and proclaims the same truth as the Gospel... Aside from their direct meaning, the sacred image as well as the Gospel are reflections of the heavenly world; the one and the other are symbols of the Spirit they contain." (Leonid Ousepnsky, Theology of the Icon)

When we hear or read scripture, we do not honor the paper and ink, but Christ Himself to whom the words ultimately point us. When we venerate an icon, the honor goes not to the materials (wood, paint, etc), but to the person depicted. And as we honor that person, who has been made holy by God's grace, we partake, in a way, in their holiness by the same grace. When we meditate on a person or holy event, we are partaking of that holiness by opening up to it, allowing it to seep into us by trickle or flood or somewhere in between. We may be encouraged, lifted up, transformed... sanctified.

In his meditations on several icons Henri J. M. Nouwen describes how icons lead us into the sanctifying experience of God's grace. He writes of Rublev's Trinity: "Praying with this icon leads us into the mystery of God's self-revelation. It is a mystery beyond history, yet made visible through it." Regarding the Virgin of Vladimir he writes, “[she] does not enter into our familiar reality; she invites us to enter with her into the eternal life of God."

May your own meditations and prayer with icons be sanctifying to body and soul, and may you be drawn ever more into Life in Christ through the grace of God.

Feb 12th 2024

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